In This Review

Shifting Sands: The United States in the Middle East
Shifting Sands: The United States in the Middle East
By Joel S. Migdal
Columbia University Press, 2014, 424 pp

Migdal’s intriguing analysis rests on a somewhat revisionist take of the main phases of U.S. Middle East policy, which forces readers to reconsider some conventional wisdom. Migdal asserts that the U.S. strategic alliance with Israel began not during the Six-Day War, in 1967, but rather in 1970, when U.S. support for Israel’s military buildup along its border with Jordan helped maintain stability during the regional conflict that grew out of the Black September revolt against the Jordanian monarchy. He also believes that the U.S.-Israeli strategic alliance actually ended with the 1990–91 Gulf War, when the United States forbade Israel from playing a role in responding to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and told the Israelis to sit quietly even as Saddam Hussein rained missiles down on Israel. U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all missed the significance of the decline of Arab nationalism and the simultaneous rise of political Islam and non-Arab actors -- namely, Iran and Turkey -- in the Arab world. During the Clinton years and until the September 11 attacks, Washington’s Middle East strategy was “rudderless.” President George W. Bush, by contrast, had a rudder -- but steered the ship in the wrong direction. Each of Migdal’s assertions is plausible and sometimes surprising, but it is possible to employ his evidence to arrive at very different conclusions.